PHILADELPHIA, PA – Consultants who recently issued a massive report on the Philadelphia Fire Department urged labor and management to end decades of mistrust and start playing nice to solve their most contentious issues.
Instead, Local 22 of the firefighters union hired pit-bull public relations man Frank Keel, who has launched a self-described “in your face” campaign against Mayor Nutter’s policy of temporary rolling closures of fire stations.
The closures are known as “brownouts,” and the union’s campaign is called “What Can Brownouts Do for You?” – a nod to the UPS slogan. The union says the closures endanger public safety.
The first installment of the campaign features an Olney rowhouse where two children died in a blaze last year. The closest fire station was on brownout.
The ads will appear on social media, and in fliers and community newspapers, Keel said.
Brownouts are hardly the only wedge between union and management. Keel and the union also have complained about a “punitive” policy of transferring burned firefighters to less busy stations.
And then there’s the firefighters’ contract, in dispute since the Nutter administration appealed an award in November 2010 as financially ruinous. An arbitration panel is expected to decide on the contract in the coming months.
“The city hasn’t treated the firefighters with the respect they deserve,” said Keel, who is working on an open-ended contract for $3,000 a month. “These guys love their work. . . . The thanks they get is to be backhanded with these policies.”
The city says brownouts have been used for years when firefighters and equipment go out of service for training. They were backed up with firefighters earning overtime.
The difference with Nutter’s policy is that firefighters from browned-out stations are used to fill vacancies around the city, working regular time.
The city has saved $3.8 million under the policy, said Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, without jeopardizing the public.
“We stand on that,” he said. “We have the information. We’re monitoring that every day.”
The department is projected to absorb $4 million in overtime costs this fiscal year, but that’s because of low manpower, Ayers said. An academy class of 60 to 80 firefighters is being assembled.
In the Olney fire, he noted, members of the family that lived in the home attempted to fight the fire themselves, didn’t call 911 (a passerby summoned help), and didn’t have smoke alarms.
The station that responded is less than two-tenths of a mile farther than the browned-out station and crews arrived within five minutes.
Ayers said he was concerned that Local 22’s campaign could spread misinformation.
“If you don’t educate your community partners properly, you’re doing them a disservice,” he said. “You don’t want them living in fear.”
Keel, best known as the spokesman for Local 98, the powerful electricians union, said Ayers was blaming the victims in the Olney fire – “a shameful diversion from the truth that brownouts endanger lives.”
On the issue of burned firefighters, Ayers said the ones who were transferred were found to need more training and supervision to use their equipment properly and avoid injury.
Keel called that a “bold-faced lie.” He said the firefighters were put on the shelf because their injuries raised the city’s insurance premiums. The transfers were about “money and vindictiveness,” he said.
The mayor’s spokesman, Mark McDonald, said Keel had similar motives.
“I think Mr. Keel needs to look in the mirror,” he said.